Is Sociocracy the Next Evolution of Democracy?

Don’t let the name throw you. Sociocracy is not socialism or even a form of or shade of socialism. Socialism is essentially the control of land, resources, capital, means of production, etc. by a centralized authority such as the State or government. Sociocracy, on the other hand, is a tool, “simply a method for organizing ourselves to live and work together more efficiently and more harmoniously,” as John Buck and Sharon Villines state in their book, We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy – a Guide to Sociocratic Principles and Methods, which is one of the best books in English on the subject, and the source of much of the information that follows. (Note: The link connects to the new, 2nd edition. All quotes herein are from the 1st edition.)

Buck and Villines state:

“Sociocracy, also known as dynamic governance or dynamic self-governance, is a method of organizing and governing ourselves using the principle of consent.”

“Sociocratic governance builds on the values and experience of democracy and scientific discoveries of the twentieth century to create an even more participatory and inclusive system.”

“…sociocracy is as potentially revolutionary (as the United States constitution) – a peaceful revolution this time, conducted by consent, one that promises to be quiet, gradual and nurturing.”

“The sociocratic method … reframes the whole concept of ownership and eliminates the master-servant relationship.”

And from Wikipedia:

“Sociocracy is a system of governance using consent-based decision making among equivalent individuals and an organizational structure based on cybernetic principles.”

So, where did sociocracy come from and how does it work? The word was coined by French philosopher Auguste Comte in the early 1800’s. In the late 1800’s American sociologist Lester Fank Ward picked up on the term. The idea wasn’t developed into a working system until the 1940’s when Kees Boeke, a Dutch educator and peace activist, used it as a means to govern his school. In the 1970’s, Dutch electrical engineer and entrepreneur Gerard Endenburg combined systems thinking and cybernetics to further develop the idea into a system that could be widely used. The ideas and concepts have also been influenced by mathematicians, systems thinkers, economists, and other scientists including Norbert Weiner, Kenneth Boulding, John Forbes Nash, Ilya Prigogine, and others. Today the international sociocratic association, called the Sociocratisch Centrum, located in Rotterdam, continues the development of sociocratic applications and methods. (Click here for English website.)

In a sociocratic system people are organized into groups and make decisions by consent based on four governing principles. These are:

  1. Decision Making by Consent. Decisions are made when there are no remaining “paramount objections.” Objections must be reasoned and argued and based on the ability of the objector to work productively toward the goals of the organization.
  2. Circle Organization. The sociocratic organization is composed of a hierarchy of semiautonomous circles. This hierarchy, however, does not constitute a power structure as autocratic hierarchies do. Each circle has the responsibility to execute, measure, and control its own processes in achieving its goals. It governs a specific domain of responsibility within the policies of the larger organization. Circles are also responsible for their own development and for each member’s development.
  3. Double-Linking. Circles are connected to the next higher circle by a double link composed of the operational leader and a circle representative. These linking circle members function as full members in the decision-making of both their circle and the next higher circle. The operational leader of a circle is selected by the next higher circle and represents the larger organization in the circle’s decision-making. A representative is selected by the circle to represent the circle interests in the next higher circle.
    At the highest level of the organization, there is a “Top Circle,” similar to a traditional board of directors that connects the organization to its environment. Typically, these members include representatives with expertise in law, government, finances (including investors), community, and the organization’s mission. The top circle also includes the CEO and representatives of general management circle. Each of these circle members participates fully in decision-making.
  4. Elections by Consent. Individuals are elected to roles and responsibilities in open discussion using the same consent criteria used for other policy decisions. Members of the circle nominate themselves or other members of the circle and present reasons for their choice. After discussion, people can (and often do) change their nominations, and the discussion leader will suggest the election of the person for whom there are the strongest arguments. Circle members may object and there is further discussion. For a role that many people might fill, this discussion may continue for a few rounds. For others, this process is short when fewer people are qualified for the task. The circle may also decide to choose someone who is not a current member of the circle.

These four governing principles are requirements in order for an organization to function sociocratically because they are interdependent, each one supporting the successful application of the others. (Source: Wikipedia.)

Understand that consent is not consensus. Consensus is where everyone must agree on every decision. Consensus takes forever, requires endless discussion and debate, and is an incredibly inefficient way to get things done. Consent on the other hand is essentially the absence of paramount objections – meaning one has no arguable reason to prevent a proposal from moving forward or a decision being made. We make decisions sociocraticaly every single day without even realizing it. Consider the following scenario.

You are out with five friends – Alice, Ben, Cathy, Dave, and Erin – and the six of you are trying to decide where to eat dinner that night. Typically the conversations begins with a simple question, “Where should we eat?” Then each person in turn expresses their opinion on the matter. Alice says she’s in the mood for Chinese. Ben is thinking Mexican but could be swayed toward pizza. Cathy doesn’t want to go to a pizzeria because she’s lactose intolerant and pizza is covered in cheese, therefore she suggest a steak house or a salad bar. Dave has no preference. Erin is eager to go to the new oyster bar across town but you object because you are allergic to shellfish. You state that you are in the mood for something spicy.

In just a few moments a proposal was submitted to the group for discussion, everyone expressed their opinions as equals, and the available options and objections were made known to everyone. The next thing that typically happens is that a solution is reached wherein everyone is happy with the decision made. (Note that this is not a case in majority rule.) The group won’t demand that you eat shellfish. Doing so would do you harm. If they did insist that you eat oysters – as often happens in majority rule systems – you suffer because of your allergies. This happens all the time in democratic societies based on majority rule because whenever there is a majority there must be, as a natural result, a minority subjected to the will of the majority. Often this minority has no recourse because they have no power, by virtue of their status as the minority. This has been the fate of all marginalized groups in history.

Continuing with the example, after the first round of discussion it is established that:

  • You are allergic to shellfish, but wish to eat spicy food.
  • Alice wants Chinese food.
  • Ben would like Mexican (or possibly pizza).
  • Cathy is lactose intolerant and suggest steak or salad instead of pizza.
  • Dave has no preference.
  • Erin wants oysters.

Your shellfish allergies and Cathy’s inability to eat cheese are paramount objections. Your group’s evening together will come to a halt if the others insist on eating pizza or oysters. Unlike the decisions of your city, state, or national government, with your circle of friends you not only have a choice in the matter but can opt to not participate if you disagree with the decision or if the decision would cause you harm. So, what happens next? You seek an option that works for everyone because you have a common goal – you all want to spend the evening dining together. Dave might point out that Chinese food is largely (if not completely) cheese free so it’s an option for Cathy. It’s also a good non-shellfish option for you, provided you avoid the sweet and sour shrimp. You also want spicy food and that is easy enough to find at most Chinese restaurants. Ben wants Mexican but has no paramount objections to eating Chinese – meaning he isn’t committed to eating Mexican food enough to argue strongly for it and has no health issues related to eating Chinese food. Cathy consents because she can get beef and vegetables at a Chinese place. Erin consents because she can easily get a seafood dish at almost any Chinese restaurant. Thus consent is achieved and the decision is made. The next step is appointing someone to call and make reservations. Several members of the group nominate Dave because he sells restaurant supplies and knows the city’s best restaurants. The group then decides, rather quickly and easily, to take Erin’s car since it is big enough to hold everyone.

Do you see what just happened? The decisions were made by consent – Principle I. The group was a semiautonomous and self-organizing circle of friends that had its own aim (where to go for dinner). It made decisions within its domain and delegated members to specified task with measurable results – Principle 2. Principle 3 doesn’t apply in this situation because the group didn’t have anyone else to report to or a higher authority or group to answer to. However, the group did implement Principle 4 by electing people to functions and tasks by consent after open discussion. Dave agreed to make reservations and Erin assumed the task of driving everyone in her car. This is sociocracy in a nutshell. We do it every single day of our lives.

“A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”
– Thomas Jefferson

Imagine what would happen if we practiced sociocracy on larger scales in more places. What if the company we work for operated sociocratically? Many companies do and are very successful. What if our schools, non-profit, and non-governmental agencies and organizations operated according to sociocracy? There are many that do, and do very well. What if our political institutions were restructured according to sociocratic principles? What transformations might occur at community, local, state, and federal levels? Experiments in these areas are just beginning. However, the concept has been proven – it’s simply a matter of scale. Furthermore, Principle 3 offers a means of organizing larger groups through double linking, and basic mathematics allows vast numbers of people to connect quickly.

In the age of smart phones and apps, where everyone seems eager to voice their opinions about every product, company, person, and topic, there is absolutlely no reason sociocracy couldn’t be deployed and implemented on a large scale.

Consider a group of 10,000 people. They could be employees at a company, students at a school or university, or citizens of the same town. We’ll call this group of 10,000 individuals Level Zero. Now have the 10,000 individuals organize into groups of 10 people each. In sociocracy lingo the groups are called circles. This creates 1,000 circles of 10 people that we’ll call Level One. The ten people in each of the Level One circles meet and, using sociocracy, elect a representative from their circle to voice their opinions at the next higher circle. The next higher circle, Level Two, consist of 100 circles of 10 representatives each from the Level One circles. The members of each Level Two circles will do two things; 1) they will elect a representative to voice their opinion at the next higher circle, and 2) elect an operational leader who will represent the Level Two circle within the Level One circle meetings. This is an example of the double linking of sociocracy and it allows for feedback to move in two directions at the same time. Information, in the form of opinions or decisions, is flowing from the bottom up via the circle representatives and it is flowing from the top down via the operational leaders that take information from the higher circles to the lower circles.

Moving on with the example, Level Three consist of 10 circles of ten representatives each from the Level Two circles. Just as in the previous level, the members of the Level Three circles will elect a representative to voice their opinion at the next higher circle, and elect operational leaders who will represent the Level Three circle within the Level Two circle meetings. The final level is Level Four wherein the ten elected representatives from Level Three meet in a single circle of 10 people. In four steps we’ve gone from 10,000 people to 10 with everyone having a voice along the way. Once the system is established, policy decisions can be made very efficiently, while allowing everyone to voice their consent or raise paramount objections in a reasoned manner. There is a free and rapid flow of information both from the bottom up and the top down.

To summarize:

Level Zero = 10,000 individuals
Level One = 1,000 circles of 10 individuals each
Level Two = 100 circles of 10 representatives each from the Level One circles
Level Three = 10 circles of 10 representatives each from the Level Two circles
Level Four = 1 circle of 10 representatives each from the Level Three circles


A look at a single group of 10

Level One: 10 individuals from the group of 10,000 people form a single Level One circle – one of a thousand such circles. They elect a representative (in blue) to speak on their behalf at the Level Two circle.

Level Two: 100 circles of 10 representatives each representing the Level One circles. They elect a representative (in blue) to speak on their behalf at the Level Three circle and select an operational leader (in red) to represent Level Two within the Level One circle. These linking circle members function as full members in the decision-making of both their circle and the next higher circle.

Level Three: 10 circles of 10 representatives each representing the Level Two circles. They elect a representative (in blue) to speak on their behalf at the Level Four circle and select an operational leader (in red) to represent Level Three within the Level Two circle. These linking circle members function as full members in the decision-making of both their circle and the next higher circle.

Level Four: 1 circle of 10 representatives each representing the Level Three circles. They select an operational leader (in red) to represent Level Four within the Level Three circle. This is the top level whose 10 members now have the input and information of all 10,000 individuals.

It should be noted that these circles don’t have to be in multiples of 10, nor do they all have to have the same number of people or an even number of people. Multiples of 10 were used because it most clearly illustrates how quickly you can go from a large group to a small group. If these people all worked in the same company the lowest level circles might be formed according to departments or work groups within the company. The top-level circle would include the CEO and other company executives along with the elected representatives from the lower circles representing the full spectrum of employees. Additionally, the circle levels can be called anything. Level zero, one, two, three, four was merely an example. Within a company, the names might reflect departments and sub-divisions of departments. Within a university, circle names right reflect the various colleges, fields of study, graduate or undergraduate, etc.

Note that in the example above we went from 10,000 to 10 in four steps. Groups consisting of a million, ten million, or even a billion or more people only require a few additional steps. It is possible to connect vast numbers of people, hear their concerns, and harness the potential of masses of people in a positive and productive way.

“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”
– Thomas Jefferson

Through sociocracy we have – for the first time in human history – a tool that allows all voices to be heard and still make decisions efficiently. It is a purer, truer, more evolved form of democracy and one that is truly democratic. It provides a means of regaining control of the ship of state and doing so peaceably without revolt, rebellion, or bloodshed. Those entrenched in and empowered by the current dysfunctional and unfair system may cry “Mutiny!”, but it will be a peaceful mutiny and, through sociocracy, even their views will be heard, and may even be considered, provided they can have “reasoned and argued” paramount objections to make their case. What bounty might humanity reap if this became the standard way of doing things?

Tim Wardell is a deep thinker, gardener, husband, father, would-be science fiction sex comedy novelist, and margarita aficionado. When not doing any of those things, he reads, studies, practices, and blogs about sustainability.

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